Wayne Tilcock / Davis Enterprise file, 2011

UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike pepper-sprays protesters Nov. 18 on the campus quad. Video of the incident spread online and triggered worldwide condemnation.

UC Davis chief overruled panel to fire pepper-spray officer

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012 - 6:56 pm

The internal affairs investigation into last November's pepper-spraying controversy at UC Davis concluded that Lt. John Pike acted reasonably, with a subsequent review concluding he should have faced demotion or a suspension at worst, according to documents obtained by The Bee.

Despite those recommendations, Pike was fired Tuesday after UC Davis Police Chief Matthew Carmichael rejected the findings and wrote in a letter to Pike that "the needs of the department do not justify your continued employment," according to the documents.

Pike has declined to comment since he was placed on paid leave shortly after the Nov. 18 incident, and the university said it cannot legally comment on internal affairs investigations.

However, the documents obtained by The Bee, including the confidential 76-page internal affairs investigation report, shed light for the first time on Pike's rationale for using pepper spray on seated students and protesters, and on the differing opinions of whether he deserved to be fired from the campus police force he had served for 11 years.

The internal affairs report, conducted by a Sacramento law firm and private investigator hired by UC Davis, is dated March 1 and was completed after interviews with at least 27 police officers, including Pike, as well as university leadership going all the way up to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

"For reasons detailed in this report, we conclude that Lieutenant Pike's use of pepper spray was reasonable under the circumstances," the report states. "The visual of Lieutenant Pike spraying the seated protesters is indeed disturbing.

"However, it also fails to tell other important parts of the story."

The report found that Pike had repeatedly warned students who had gathered on the Quad to protest rising tuition costs that they would be pepper-sprayed if they did not disperse, and that "the police officers were fully encircled by protesters who had locked arms and would not let the officers exit."

The report concluded that Pike voiced serious concerns about the university's plans to remove the protesters from the Quad and that he felt the operation should be called off.

It also found that Pike had "temporarily rendered himself ineffective" in his role as the incident commander – a duty he assumed when he decided he needed to take charge – when he began taking down tents, physically separating students from each other and, ultimately, deploying his canister of pepper spray.

Video images of Pike calmly shaking his canister of pepper spray and unleashing it on students have been viewed millions of times on the Internet.

Investigators asked him to explain what they said was the public view of his "nonchalant demeanor."

"I take my job very seriously," he told them. "Any, any – any application of force – umm – for me it's not a – it's not a thrill ride – it's not – 'woo hoo, this is gonna be fun, I get to hurt somebody.' That's not it."

Instead, he said, he viewed it as applying "a tool on them to gain compliance, so that I can get my troops out of there, my suspects out of there, and get a job done," he said.

"So, if that's a critique, that I did my job in a manner-so-factly that I looked relaxed, well then maybe let's say that I'm relaxed because I'm professional."

The report added that Pike felt using the pepper spray was "appropriate" and that it "prevented further escalation" of the incident.

"Grappling (with students) would have escalated the force, whereas pepper spray took 'the fight out of them,' " the report quoted Pike as saying.

Pike, 39, did not cooperate with an independent panel's probe of the incident led by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso that was released earlier this year, so the statements in the internal affairs report are the first indication of his thought process in the incident.

Other officers told the internal affairs investigators that they were concerned about the escalating tensions on the Quad, which one called a "pretty hostile environment for us to be in at that point."

One officer recalled thinking, "Man we don't have enough officers for this," the report states. "At the point when we're encircled, I'm thinking, 'This is horrible, this is really bad.' "

There are deep disputes over the notion that the officers were in danger.

Some students say they posed no threat to anyone as they sat peacefully with their arms locked. Defenders of the police reject that, pointing to videos of protesters moving around officers and chanting that they would let the officers go if they released students they had arrested.

The internal affairs investigators, who reviewed more than 6,000 pages of emails, videos of the disturbance and other material, concluded there was a "preponderance of evidence" to support Pike's action.

"Lieutenant Pike's deployment of pepper spray was reasonable under the circumstances," the report states.

But that was not the end of the process to determine Pike's fate.

A second panel comprised of a UC Davis police captain and the campus chief compliance officer reviewed the internal affairs report and issued its own recommendations April 2.

That panel, called a "sufficiency review board," recommended "an Exonerated finding as to the charge alleging that Lt. Pike's use of force may have been excessive under the circumstances."

The panel found that some of Pike's actions in carrying out the operation "were not reasonable and prudent under the circumstances in view of his rank and responsibilities at the time."

The board cited Pike's decision to "go hands on" in removing tents himself and said that "caused him to lose perspective on the operation as a whole."

It found Pike had "multiple opportunities" to minimize the escalation of tensions and that "serious errors of judgment and deficiencies of leadership" required that he face discipline ranging from a demotion to a suspension of at least two weeks.

That recommendation was forwarded to Matthew Carmichael, the acting chief who was placed in the job permanently on April 19.

In a letter dated April 27, Carmichael informed Pike that he planned to fire him. Carmichael noted that Annette Spicuzza, who was chief at the time of the pepper-spraying, had indicated she wanted "a minimum amount of force" used and that Pike had objected to her request that officers not wear helmets or batons.

Carmichael concluded that Pike had assumed the role of de facto commander of the operation "but performed it poorly" and that the "manner in which you used the pepper spray showed poor judgment" given the direction that minimal force was to be used.

"The Operation caused damage to the campus and the Department," Carmichael wrote. "It is my judgment that you bear significant responsibility for that outcome.

"Knowing this information, you stated when interviewed that there is nothing you would do differently. Faced with the same circumstances, you would still have deployed the pepper spray."

Experts differ on whether a law enforcement leader's decision to overrule a disciplinary recommendation from an internal affairs panel is common.

Former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness, who said he has overseen more than 100 such investigations, said such moves are extremely rare.

"That would be most unusual," he said.

But Michael Risher, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who is suing Pike and the university on behalf of students who were pepper-sprayed, said there are numerous instances where internal affairs investigations have failed to properly discipline officers.

"The idea that police departments adequately police themselves has been shown again and again to be a complete fallacy," said Risher, who added that he had not seen any of the documents related to Pike and did not want to comment directly on his firing.

"History has shown us that police departments do a horrible job of disciplining their own officers for their conduct," he said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Sam Stanton

Sacramento Bee Job listing powered by Careerbuilder.com
Quick Job Search
Sacramento Bee Jobs »
Used Cars
Dealer and private-party ads


Price Range:
Search within:
miles of ZIP

Advanced Search | 1982 & Older